The Western Wall PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
The Western Wall
Archaeology of the Wall
Destruction of Temple
In Deuteronomy 12:13-14, Moses says that Israel is to have a single center of worship. For centuries that was the Temple in Jerusalem. After its destruction, Jews prayed toward the place where it had stood. Since the 16th century, if not earlier, they have focused on a surviving section of its western retaining wall. Those who visited before 1967 often wept here over the loss of the Temple, and it came to be known as "the Wailing Wall" -- a name now avoided, for reasons we shall see.

prayers at western wall.jpg

Why was this section singled out as holy?

For one thing, here the ancient stones were exposed and accessible. (The lowest seven visible courses go back to the time of the Second Temple. )

A second reason: other parts of the Temple's retaining walls were also exposed on the south and east, but this western section was closest to the Jewish Quarter. The latter had been developing on Jerusalem's western hill since the 13th century.

For centuries, then, this piece of wall has been the main point of contact between the Jewish people and its ancient Temple. 

To the custom of praying here, a scriptural tradition attached itself. In the Song of Songs 2:9, it is written: 

My beloved is like a roe or a young hart.
Behold, he stands behind our wall!
He looks in at the windows.
He glances through the lattice.

An ancient rabbinical commentary adds: "This is the western wall of the Temple, which will never be destroyed, because the shekhinah is in the west." (Exodus Rabbah 2,2.)

(In fact, no wall of the Temple building itself remains, while in addition to this western retaining wall, large portions of its southern and eastern counterparts are also intact. Nevertheless, the rabbinical comment was applied to the Western Wall, contributing to its holiness in the hearts of pious Jews.)

24112002022453.jpgIf we come here in the morning on Sabbath (or on Monday or Thursday, the old market days) we can witness groups of worshippers reading from scrolls of the Torah . Many services may be going on at once: a quorum of ten suffices. (A minyan. ) In some of these services, a thirteen-year-old boy will be responsible for the Torah reading. He is a bar mitzvah, literally a "son of the commandment." By this act of publicly chanting the Torah portion, he is undergoing his initiation into manhood. It is a nerve-racking affair: He hasn't the vowel signs or the musical notes in front of him, but older men, who have both in their books, stand ready to correct him. (Is there a "a daughter of the commandment?" She would be called a bat mitzvah. )

The ceremony is not attested before 1400 AD, although the Mishnah, 1200 years earlier, gave the age of 13 as that for observing the commandments.

Pope John Paul II places a prayer in Western WallOn a Bar Mitzvah day, we can see the joy of families as their boys become men. For the last 34 years, indeed, more joy than wailing has been heard at the Western Wall. The turning point came in June 1967, when Israel conquered the Old City. Since then the Jews have dropped the name, "Wailing Wall."

Gentiles too may approach the stones. Solomon made provision for the "foreigner" when he dedicated the Temple ( 1 Kings 8:41-43 ). Certain rules should be observed. (See Logistics.)

Since 1929, the Jews have separated women from men here, as in orthodox synagogues. Women go to the right, men to the left. On any day but Sabbath, one may write a prayer and tuck it into a crevice.